24 October, 2013

Banks and Bikes

As promised in my last post, this post is about my new bank account and my newly repaired bike.

Part I: The Bank Account Saga

I arrived in Germany without a German bank account, and with only a vague idea of how I was going to access my money. I managed for longer than expected without my own cash supply; between my host family giving me a bit of cash in advance of my real paycheck and Maxim paying for the occasional item, I went more than a month without visiting an ATM. I knew that having a German bank account would be both more convenient and cheaper than using my American accounts while I'm here, but I underestimated how long it would take to set one up and how many hoops I would have to jump through.

I decided, among my many options, to open an account through the online branch of Commerzbank, known as comdirect, which is the same bank that Maxim uses. He filled out the paperwork for me, and before he sent it we had to go to the post office and have the post office clerk verify my identity. (I'm glad Maxim figured all this out, because I would have been pretty lost.) After all the forms were sent out, I just had to wait... or so I thought. I received an email from the bank shortly after they reviewed my paperwork, stating that since I'm an American citizen I would have to fill out a form from the IRS and return it to the bank along with a photocopy of my passport. This form essentially made me fill out an entire sheet of paper just so they could ask me for my Social Security number. It seemed a bit excessive, but I filled it out, Maxim scanned it, and I sent it back as a reply to the original email (along with the passport copy). Then, a few days later (or maybe it was a week) I got another email telling me that a scan of the form wasn't sufficient and I had to mail a hard copy instead. *sigh* Maxim mailed it for me (he's so helpful!) and I waited some more.

At long last, I got a letter from the bank saying that my account was open! I thought my wait was over, but that letter contained no helpful information about my account whatsoever. Ok, well I would probably receive the information I needed (my account number, my debit card, and my PIN) in the next few days, right? Wrong. Over the course of the next TEN days, I got six or seven letters from the bank, and the most important ones (containing my log-in information for online banking, my debit card, and my PIN) came dead last. At least I have everything now, but what a complicated procedure! From start to finish, the process took almost a month. Hopefully this bank is worth it.

Part II: Bikes Are Wonderful!

Up until this week, "my" bike (the bike that my host family has specifically for the au pair) has been in need of repair and unavailable for use. The few times that I've needed/wanted a bike I've used my host father Ulrich's bike, but his bike left a lot to be desired. It is too small for me, and I couldn't figure out how to raise the seat, so riding it was very uncomfortable on my long legs. Then there were the gears; I've never seen gears like this on a bike. There were only a few speeds (maybe 6, I'm not sure because I only ever used gears 3 and 4), and contrary to my intuition the gears could only be changed when I wasn't pedaling. Then there was the fact that the bike didn't feel very sturdy, especially when riding quickly or uphill. All in all, not a very enjoyable bike for me to ride.

Then, this week, everything changed. My bike came back from the bike shop, where Tatjana and I had dropped it off last week to be repaired, and a new world of transportation opened up to me. I started riding around to test out the new bike, and I immediately noticed a huge difference from the old one. The frame felt sturdier, I could raise the seat so the size is more suited to me (although the seat is very hard to move and the frame still isn't quite big enough), the gears work like I expect, there are 21 speeds like I'm used to, and it is generally easier and more enjoyable to ride. In the past few days I have ridden my bike basically everywhere I've gone: to German class, to Maxim's apartment and his fraternity, to the gym (yes, I went to the gym for the first time since I've been here!), to the nearby shopping center, to the city to look for shoes... I can even take my bike on the tram, so if I don't want to bike all the way to the city I can still take the tram as usual, and the "commute" to and from the tram stop is much shorter with the bike than it is walking.

Here's my bike! The basket on the back is especially helpful for carrying bags, coats, books, etc.

Fortunately, the arrival of my newly refurbished bike has coincided with beautiful weather, so riding my bike outside is a treat. The past few days I've very much enjoyed the cool breezes and blue skies as I've pedaled around the city. Riding a bike in Karlsruhe (and I assume in most cities in Germany) is also very convenient and, by American standards, very safe because of all the bike paths. Often the bike paths are like extra sidewalks next to the road, or the normal sidewalks have one half dedicated to bikes, so most of the time bikes are not in the street with cars as they would be in the United States. And even on streets where bikes and cars share the same space, car drivers are typically very considerate and aware of bikes. There are even streets that are just for bikes and pedestrians, and on these streets pedestrians are more of a hazard to cyclists than cars. Whatever the case may be, the bike paths are always well marked, with signs, different colored pavement/cobblestones, or clear lines and diagrams of bicycles on the road indicating the bike lane.

Before I had my bike, I underestimated how how freeing it is to have one and how easy it is to get around. Now that I've discovered this, I don't want to go back to walking. Now if I miss my tram I can just bike home, often in less time than it would take on the tram. Plus, riding a bike is good exercise and warms me up when it's chilly outside. The only downside is arriving at my German class hot and sweaty, but I'm sure my classmates are okay with that. All in all, I have to say that Germany (and other places in Europe) have the right idea with the whole bike thing. Maybe it's time for the US to get on board.

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